Thursday, 3 March 2016
Wednesday, 24 February 2016
Monday, 25 January 2016
Tuesday, 12 January 2016
A friend of mine came to stay a while ago and out of nowhere asked me what my 'spirit animal' was. I told him I didn't have one.
“No problem”, he said, “What would it be if you could choose one now?”
I thought for a minute. I had been working all week in my vegetable garden, harvesting rhubarb and purple sprouting broccoli, weeding the beds, turning the compost and enjoying the company of the robins, as well as an occasional duck flapping up from the tiny River Graveney, a tributary of the Wandle in SW London. Thinking of the heavy alluvial soil in the garden, I said:
“No, you can't have that, choose something beautiful, something bigger...”
He seemed to want me to pick some sort of photogenic megafauna, perhaps with fur or feathers, or maybe even just a face, but I persisted. I told him how the worms were pulling my compost down into the clay soil, making it easier to work year by year. I described how even the mucous-strengthened voids they leave as they pass through the soil are beneficial to plant roots, making space for them, aerating the beds. I mentioned how all this soil-eating earth-turning industry took place out of sight, almost silently, to everyone's great benefit, occasionally even the robin's. My friend still wasn't happy about it, but there you go.
Here is a link to Dancing The Cailleach by Charlotte DuCann, which also quotes from the letter of thanks I wrote to her and Dougie Strang a week after Carrying The Fire. I have posted it below almost in its entirety.
Dear Charlotte and Dougie, I hope you are both well, and recovered from your travels. What an amazing weekend with such open-hearted folk! Thank you both again. I needed to write a few words about what happened at CTF, and what was revealed about those events even as I was aboard the train on my way to Glasgow.
Firstly, I have to say, I had never heard the names of the Celtic hero 'Ossian' or the grand old crone 'Cailleach' before that weekend, I did not know what they meant, any tales about them, or indeed about Finn McCoul, to my shame. I know a little more about the Roman, Greek, Indian, Viking or Taoist mythic worlds, but not so much from the Celtic lands. It's hard to know where to start with this tale, so I'll just start telling it and see what happens...
Since my friends M and N died, over the last month, and as Samhain approached, both my partner and I had felt the veils between life and death to be thinner than we'd ever felt them to be. This was not an abstract conception, but a felt sense, sort of tremulous and shimmering, accompanied by a heightened awareness of the fleetingness of ordinary life, and the sheer luck of our particular existences. We talked about this over the week before Carrying The Fire, and discussed the premature yet exemplary way in which both men had died: without struggle, with their dear partner beside them, in their own homes. Feeling blessed to be alive, and with no plan other than to be really present at CTF, and to be prepared in my heart to give a eulogy at N's funeral, I arrived at Corrour to find the stag and be led to where I had to go.
Dougie's stories of Ossian, Finn McCoul and Cailleach bound me to the place. Immediately I did not feel like a tourist. Often I haven't enjoyed story tellings, perhaps my head has been all wrong, too accustomed to the written word, and to film's familiar pace, or perhaps the teller has been heavy-handed. This time I was transported to exactly where I was, just not when I was, but somewhen more ancient. Throughout the Whakapapa, the meal, the amazing fire circle singing and telling, I felt part of a family outside time, which I had only felt with my T'ai Chi posse over the years, and perhaps with a few special friends, and on my own a few times in nature, (one of which I sung about in the circle). It was not a psychological or therapeutic setting, but a deeply connected almost mythic space, which you helped create. As I have only seen properly described in the words of Riddley Walker, or perhaps the books of Ursula K LeGuin, People are not the only people there. Land, rocks, mountains and lakes, beings and heroes of the past, forces and gods are at the fireside too. I had not realised the extent to which a human heart, made soft and yielding by sincere practice and by fate, (by which I mean the events of one's life over which one has no control), could be so thoroughly permeable to these other guests at the hearth. I had not realised how much I had been hollowed out, and therefore how much I might get filled.
And then the second day: Cailleach and the Medicine Wheel. I had slept very well and woke to that incredible sunshine, I practiced by the loch-shore like some 'Come to Scotland' tube advert. Charlotte echoed what was in my heart about silence, stillness and letting go and I was glad to get out on the rocks that Cailleach had strewn from her basket. I had planned to sit but as soon as I was upon the right rock I just stood there facing the mountain. For me being silent for a whole week or more is, if not exactly commonplace, then what I do at least every year on retreat. Also, to just stand, or just be, in a place is what I deem to be good medicine. Frequently the very first thing we teach a new student in our tradition is to stand still, feel the earth, and listen attentively without interfering. And yet I have never stood like that before. My feet felt like knees or thighs, and the rock or even the bedrock under the peat felt like my real feet. When the wind blew, I did not sway in the usual way, but seemingly from below where I was standing. In telling this tale I may begin to sound 'woo', which is a term I have picked up and run with - it's excellent! However, you didn't know me before Samhain, and so don't know quite how un-woo, unmagical and frankly how averse to new-age or vaguely spiritual fluff I have been, especially up until my late 30s.
So I stood facing the slopes, really still, totally relaxed, quiet-minded for about 25 minutes. When my body naturally turned I felt myself facing a quarter turn right to the hills, then later towards the loch, then facing the sun, finally back to face the mountain. I climbed down onto another rock which had a large shaped indent, where I lay semi-reclined facing the mountain. From somewhere I started singing to Cailleach for about 8 minutes, the song didn't repeat and I didn't interrupt myself as to why the song came out. I only remembered 4 lines when I came back to the group, and someone asked me to sing it. For some reason I had had the goddess Bridget (Bridhe, Bride, Brigga) on my mind all day, and had even asked Dougie about her. Her name is in many places in Dorset, where I am from, and she was in my song, though I had no idea why. It began something like:
Cailleach I bring you word
I bring you word from Bridget
A greeting in this song
Brought by my southern daughter
The rest of the content of the song seemed to be some kind of gift or offering. Again, it ended by itself and I walked back humming the tune (which I still remember) and joined you all at the hostel. It was difficult to begin to speak in words. The dream map was drawn up, food shared, the walk to the station magically happened at dusk and songs beneath the stag rounded the circle.
All of this great beauty was already enough.
Then you guys got off at Crianlarich. We all started singing 'Ghost of John'. A young couple who had been to that performance on Skye someone had mentioned during the weekend, by Hanna Tuulikki, got talking to some of us and I took them some chocolate a while later. As they chatted I looked at the program they had brought. As I read it I realised it told the story of the annual ceremonial defeat of Bridget by Cailleach each Samhain and had been enacted at the tomb of a real sacrificial Iron-Age 'Bridget' at a High Pasture Cave on Skye. (I can send a few scans of the program in case you can't find it online.) As I sat there slightly spluttering and getting hotter the others asked me what had happened, and as I read more it became even stranger. My ad-libbed song seemed to tell part of the mythic story as outlined in the research notes in the print. I have never read the story before, I didn't know any links between Bridhe and Cailleach, in fact I had mistakenly thought they might be analogous, rather than separate aspects of the Triple Goddess. Over the rest of the journey I talked with others about what had happened: my group of three others from earlier remembered the song and were as gob-smacked as me. The young couple came and gave me their program later on, saying they could get another and that I needed to have it.
We all left the train in good cheer. I arrived at my destination in Aberdeenshire at 2am and fell fast asleep.
And all of that was uncanny and wonderful enough.
We set out early the next day to N's funeral, held at a church on the banks of a tributary of the Dee, where I had visited as a young child with my maternal grandmother, who was from the area. N had lived here most of his life, apart from his time in London... It was here, aged eight, that I had first seen salmon leaping the falls to make their way upstream. The shape of their dark bodies against the white frothy water is one of my clearest childhood memories, and is why I recognised them again with joy in a split second when I saw fish jumping at the new state-of-the-art fish ladder right by my boat, earlier this year. The funeral was the most amazing ceremony I have ever had the honour of attending. Between N's express wishes and the sensitivity of his partner to conveying his life and way, the most beautiful alchemy occurred. Everyone was in their favourite colourful clothes, at N's request. The atmosphere was a continuation from CTF, T'ai Chi and Shiatsu colleagues, friends, family and neighbours sat around his beautiful wicker coffin which rested simply on the ground. Music, eulogies and singing took place. I told how N would have loved the song around fire at CTF and how folks had said 'He is here!'; and how people, when united in fellow feeling and in nature become a kind of kin.
Then N's younger daughter, played an incredibly moving work on violin: the piece - 'Ossian' - by J Scott Skinner.
Outside N had asked that we do a T'ai Chi Short Form around his coffin, and in the bright hot sunshine we did that, as well as things we call 'Front Heart Salutations', which our Grandmaster John Kells created, which, in a nutshell, are a physical practice to encourage us to outreach into and call back from the unknown, in a similar way to how the CTF weekend felt: ie. with openness, rawness and heart. I invited anyone to join in with these, and to feel all these people around us moving together without rehearsal, natural and unselfconsciously, was a real joy. Two friends gently drummed us down to his plot in the burial meadow, (which I learned in Scotland is called rather wonderfully 'the lair'). There was a round sung even as we threw earth onto the coffin after it had been lowered into the soil. Between tears and sobs there were also coherent melodies, and simple words, weaving and entwining, before breaking down again, but always someone carried the tune, and so we could rejoin again after the next breath. It rose and fell for as long as it lasted, and then softly returned to silence. I felt I learned something of the inklings of the beginnings of song, of true mourning, of real community, of something genuine and so much older than any religious church service or sanitised Humanist ceremony could have offered.
The wake at the village hall was to be a celebration of N's life and so people brought lots of wonderful food to share. Everyone spoke with everyone, stories were shared and tales told, lots of laughter and tears as well as endless tea and coffee, some wine and delicious aged cheese from Holland. At some point music was being played and the sun went down. A violinist and pianist were preparing to play traditional songs so we could all dance a few sets and have a ceilidh. A little boy of about three years was running about naked until his mother called him back before the first dance:
'Ossian! Ossian! Come here so you don't get your feet stepped on!'
Dashing White Sargeant, Gay Gordons, one other I forget the name of and then an Orcadian Strip The Willow. These dances, which I mostly haven't danced since I was a young girl at the Caledonian Society in my home town, were there in my body and the caller called them out of me. We all danced our hearts out, threw our partners around and ye-hooed (I am sure there is a hidden Scottish martial art encoded in Strip The Willow). Afterwards, to many a 'N would have loved that', we also agreed that he had started a craze: everyone now wanted a funeral like this!
I finally headed home the next day, and over the following week at classes shared the story of the celebration with all the London students who had not been able to come. N was well-loved in all the school, in Scotland, Sweden, and in London, and will be greatly missed, but will also be held as a great inspiration. Now I have heard a little of Ossian, I realise those qualities of the bard, the musician (he played fiddle), the poet, the warrior and the lover, of nature, the land and of people, were so strong in him and why his daughter chose to play that song. It was his real life and genuine daily practice that made him who he was. He built his own wooden house, raised his garden, nurtured his family there. In teaching T'ai Chi and Shiatsu he directly alleviated suffering in his community and benefited those he met. It is our lived lives and our everyday choices that express our hearts, not flimsy 'intentions' or wistful thoughts. His practice was not held up or inconvenienced by illness or death. These were opportunities to practice his heart work, and love.
I can't say how or why Ossian, Cailleach and Bridget found their way into my lived story that weekend, or what it means, if it means anything at all. I am eternally grateful for your part in it, Dougie and Charlotte and to all those who were there with us. All I can say is that I was genuinely raw, open, and truly interested in the people and land around me, in other words, not busy dwelling on self. Perhaps some aspect of the land sung something through me, to itself: sort of 'here's a nice empty one, let's use her for a while and sing that old song again'. The feeling of the weekend was the same immersed naturalness that I first felt again after childhood, aged 30 under an oak tree by Derwent water, whilst answering nature's call... Sharing the song of it in the fire circle on Samhain was perhaps a door to the way of being that I was singing/re-membering. Anyway, my ideas about what happened are immaterial. I just wanted to share the story with you, whilst it was fresh in my body, and this is the first evening I have had to write.
I genuinely love the land of these Isles that make up Britain. I love many of its customs and ways, especially some of the old ones, and a few of the new ones too. When I find fossils in Dorset I get bone-deep joy. But if you showed me a far-off society where Samhain was celebrated as we did at Carrying the Fire, and the death of a dear one was marked in way it was for N, I would go into exile from this country to live there with those good people and become part of that culture. Ceremony, gathering together and marking the passage of the year and of our lives are so important to me, and are so lost in the wider human culture in Britain from which I am mostly alienated, and manage to evade by living moored beside a tiny island in the middle of a river. My heart was at home over Samhain, and through unparalleled good fortune, I was at home both culturally and geographically. People are made refugees every day and must leave their hearths for uncertain futures. Even within this country, Britons are displaced from the beneficial aspects of their culture and nature, by the market, homelessness, delusion and a thousand other causes. I don't know why I have had the luck over time to find the sanghas I need to stay sane and reasonably well, but I am grateful, and hope to sing more songs of thanks to ancient landforms and to excellent persons, mythic or otherwise, as the earth and time so moves me.
I send love and best wishes, and count me in on the well-cleaning - I have chest waders and will travel. Caro x